Season 2 Issue 1: A Sangeetha Samvaadham with Brindha Manickavasakan
Updated: Sep 13, 2022
Welcome to the second season of Sangeetha Samvaadham, a series of compact written profiles of Carnatic musicians by Ramaa Ramesh. Samvaadham is the Sanskrit word for a conversation, and each of these conversations is an attempt to understand a little more about each artiste, their journey and how they perceive themselves and their art form. To this end, each conversation is unique, without a pre-set list of questions or talking points,allowing us to gain a true reflection of how that artiste perceives themselves and the world around them. Each profile ends with an exclusive performance by the artiste for Sangeetha Samvaadham.
Brindha Manickavasakan is a Carnatic vocalist and research scholar. She is a student of Sangeetha Kala Acharya Suguna Varadachari.
Photo supplied by artiste, credit: SS Kumar
There is, in Brindha Manickavasakan's music, a depth and classicism that helps her stand out in the busy musical landscape. In preparation for this interview, I'm listening to a playlist of her performances on Youtube. The comments section is full of listeners hailing her bhavam, the attention to detail, the range of songs she selects, her full-throated signing and her powerful voice. When I speak to her a few hours later and tell her I enjoy that resonant style of singing, she shakes her head, laughing. "I've had a lot of feedback about my singing style. Some told me my volume was too high, some said the voice in higher octaves had to be thin... It was a little challenging figuring out the right way to go about it, but then it was ultimately about understanding my voice."
Brindha started learning music when she was six. Her father, she says, has always been a 'crazy, passionate rasika' of music, who encouraged her to dive into music classes with a succession of teachers in Dubai, where the family was based for much of Brindha's school years. 8 more years would go by after that first lesson for Brindha to well and truly fall in love with Carnatic music, transforming hobby into passion.
Brindha notes that shifting to Chennai (or Madras as it still was back then) was a game-changer for her. “It was overwhelming at first”, she shares. “The music scene was so much more intense and involved. Culturally, and in every other way, Madras was so different.”
Brindha began lessons in Madras at 14. "I learnt initially from Dr Manjula Sriram, then briefly from Neyveli Santhanagopalan sir and finally Suguna Varadachari maami. The learning journey with each of these gurus completely changed my understanding of music. I developed a real passion for music and I began to learn what it really meant to appreciate music, that performing is not the 'be all and end all' of learning to sing."
Photo supplied by artiste, credit: Rajappane Raju
What was the shift like to more formal learning in Madras? "After we moved to Madras, my first guru here was Dr Manjula Sriram. Classes with Manjula maami were an eye-opener", shares Brindha. "Maami's teaching methodologies, her insistence on memorising whatever we learnt as we went, how she taught us to understand raagas through compositions, develop our own interpretations and build around an idea... All of this was new to me. Maami insisted on a disciplined approach to learning, so learning a song meant first memorizing it no matter what. We could have a concert on the day of a class, but there was no compromise on singing and showing maami what we had learnt the previous class by-heart, before going to the concert. I learnt several new krithis, explored new raagas and began to understand more about manodharma singing. Our group was quite a big one and lots of fun. We had the opportunity to exchange ideas with each other and sang enthusiastically together. Then afterwards I learnt briefly from Neyveli sir, which though short in duration was an amazing experience. Thereafter I began learning from Suguna maami."
Brindha's love for Suguna maami is evident in how she describes her. "Suguna maami’s music and her teaching have had a strong, everlasting impact on me. Maami’s singing, whether it’s a raagam, or a composition or neraval or just about anything, her attention and commitment to the smallest details, the bhava, presentation and hard work are truly unbelievable and so humbling. She is an ocean of knowledge and my pillar of strength." She pauses to reflect on her first concert at the Music Academy, Madras. "Suguna maami and (Varadachari) maama both attended. After the concert, maami gave me a tight hug and I simply broke down!" She pauses. "In that moment, I felt her grace showered on me."
Meanwhile Brindha continued to climb the academic ladder. Completing her schooling in DAV Gill Nagar, she followed this with a B Tech in IT from SRM Easwari Engineering College and then moved abroad to complete her Masters’ Degree at Georgetown University, Washington. Even as she pursued a Master’s in Biostatistics, she greatly missed the Chennai music scene, she says, sharing. “I missed regular classes with Suguna maami. I missed attending concerts; I used to listen to 2-3 concerts a week before I moved and of course I missed performing concerts, too. Like so many students studying abroad, I lived in an apartment with 4 other room-mates so singing in the flat wasn’t really an option.” She chuckles. “I would commute back to the lab at night and starting at 10pm I would practise for hours into the early morning!” This period of absence from, and longing for, the music scene was significant in Brindha launching her musical career.
Photo supplied by artiste, credit: Nick Haynes
After Brindha moved back to India, she continued to work in the field of biostatistics for a year. Eventually, juggling work with music simply became unmanageable, prompting a choice between the two, and at the age of 23, Brindha told her family she was quitting her job to pursue music full-time. Was there a lot of opposition? “Not at home. My family was so supportive. They have been my biggest strength.” Brindha’s elder sister has special needs. Her younger sister is a lawyer and musician. “My parents have worked so hard and sacrificed so much. They laid the foundation for the musician that I have become.”
Her parents had her back, but not everyone was so convinced. “Several people around us weighed in and advised me in the weeks that followed, telling me I was missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime to work in the USA and to get settled there in the long-term; that I would never be able to match that kind of salary or get such a good job again... You know what it's like! They meant well, but for me it was extremely clear that music was something I just had to pursue full-time.”
Not just content with a full-time performing career, and spurred on by her love of the art form, Brindha commenced a PhD in Music focused on the contribution of Thanjavur K Ponnayya Pillai (1888-1945), a great-grandson of the famous Thanjavur Quartet of composers and himself a formidable composer as well as a multi-disciplinary musician and author. "It was a challenge picking a topic", she muses. "Thanjavur K Ponnayya Pillai was active at the peak of the Tamizh isai (music) movement and it was fascinating to learn about him and his contribution, learn and analyze his compositions and study his book. There has to be enough literature for me to work with and a guide who knows enough about the subject to aid me as I go along - who in my case was Dr Rajshri Ramakrishna. I have now submitted it to the University of Madras for internal and external examiners to feed back."
The focus on Tamizh isai extends beyond the academic for Brindha, as her listeners will know. "I make a conscious effort to include compositions in Tamizh, and where possible lesser-known compositions... There is no feeling quite like performing in your mother-tongue. You feel a connection to the music that is inexplicable."
Photo supplied by artiste, credit: Rajappane Raju
So who is on her playlist? "A long list... and I go through phases from time to time. Currently I'm going through yet another KV Narayanaswamy phase. I also listen to a lot of Musiri Subramania Iyer, Brinda-Muktha, M D Ramanathan, Madurai Mani Iyer, T N Seshagopalan, T V Shankaranarayanan, M L Vasanthakumari, G N Balasubramaniam, Voleti Venkateswarulu, Dr. Balamuralikrishna, Semmangudi, and then of course I listen to TM Krishna, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Sowmya akka, and lots of others.
Brindha's decision to become a full-time musician was made at the end of 2013. It’s been 7 years since. Was it the right decision? “100%”, she says confidently. “It hasn’t been smooth-sailing throughout. The first 1.5 years were particularly hard. There were so many unknowns and to take the leap meant learning to trust myself and the journey.” Did she face any bias along the way? "There is definitely gender bias. It is harder for women in this field. Without a backing or a support system, it is more challenging for a female artist." She reflects for a moment. "While I have been blessed to learn from wonderful gurus and have delightful, supportive rasikas who haven't shown any bias, there have been a few times that I have experienced caste bias. While it may be not apparent or obvious on the surface, it does exist. With time, I have definitely seen positive changes and I hope we continue to move in the same direction."
Given we're talking about gender bias, I ask Brindha for her thoughts on #metoo. "In recent times, we have heard so many of these cases, enough to shake our faith in the system. In my view, it's something we have to oppose strongly by staying united - if we all come together to expose these incidents and stand by each other, I believe we can eradicate this kind of behaviour and the impact on women."
In return for Brindha's classicism, her passion for the art form and her performances, rasikas have showered her with love and overwhelmed her with their unstinting support. "They travel to each one of my concerts all the way from somewhere like, say, Pammal... they specifically request certain songs that they listened to me sing previously or want to hear me sing... they give me such generous feedback. These are some of the best moments as a performing musician." Her rasika base begins at home with her husband Anand. "That's how we met, in fact", she says with a smile. "He came up to talk to me after one of my concerts."
Photo supplied by artiste, credit: Rajappane Raju
So how does Brindha unwind? "I love the veena, and have been learning to play it for many years now. There's something magical about the naadam and the way our music sounds on it. I also enjoy painting - watercolours as well as oils, but it has been a long time since I painted. I hope to get back to it soon. I am also a movie buff: a big fan of Kamal Hassan, Hugh Laurie and many such legends." Her eyes light up. "Recently, I had the chance to catch up with the Jeeves and Wooster series and A Bit of Fry and Laurie."
I point out that there's not much on her Instagram feed and she laughingly admits that she is not really into social media. "I should probably post more!"
As we wrap up, I ask Brindha what is keeping her busy these days.
"I just finished work on a collaboration with French harpist Lina Bellard, as part of Alliance Francaise's Bonjour India festival. Together we presented solos in our respective styles of music, we jointly presented a performance in which we brought together improvisations in both musical systems.
Meanwhile, I continue to learn and practice as usual. The most recent kirtanam I learnt is Tyagaraja Mahadvajaaroha, a grand composition in Sri raagam. And of course as always I look forward to performing in the upcoming concerts and for Navarathri."
On request, here is an exclusive piece from Brindha Manickavasakan for readers of Sangeetha Samvaadham.
Ramaa Ramesh is a music teacher, storyteller and lifelong fan of Carnatic music. More from her here.